Where could you walk through a World War II trench, listen to first hand tales told of a life in the French Resistance, hear the songs of rebellion from 1381 sung by a famous modern day folk singer, watch longbows being fired across a field, hear Aphrodite described as ‘uber gorgeous squared’ in a very irreverent talk about the Illiad, learn the importance of a Kit Kat in one of the greatest Cold War spy rescues and hear the sound of the pipes played at the Battle of Waterloo? The answer of course is the Chalke Valley History Festival, the UKs largest festival dedicated to all things historical, which runs for a week in June every year in the Wiltshire countryside.
Dates for Chalke Valley History Festival 2020: 22 – 28 June
The festival started life as a one off event, a small scale fundraiser for the local village cricket club, organised by historian and cricket lover, James Holland. A surprise hit, it has expanded and increased in size over the years, and is now in its ninth year, having been sponsored by the Daily Mail since 2013 and by various other institutions who sponsor the individual talks. Run as a charity, the festival raises money to take history to the people, and runs a schools festival on some of the days, providing funding for schools from less affluent areas to ensure that they too can visit and learn about the past outside the classroom.
It takes place in a farm in the small Wiltshire village of Broadchalke, just outside Salisbury. It really is idyllic countryside with rolling emerald fields, lush green trees, bright red poppies lining the hills with sheep and cows wandering lazily nearby.
The festival runs from a Monday to Sunday, with free entry to the festival site on weekdays and you pay separately for the talks, the prices of which vary. The pop up talks around the site and living history are all included and it is possible to have a great day there without going to one of the main talks, although they do add to the experience. A ‘Museum Row’ has white tents staffed by assorted museums, where you can just wander down the line and try out their activities, talk to the staff, look at their displays and learn more about what they do.
The Talks at Chalke Valley History Festival
The talks are the mainstay of the festival, held in three large marquees across the site. It’s a good idea to book the talks in advance as some do sell out, but it is also possible to just book them at the ticket office on site. Prominent historians come from across the country to give talks, a wide range of speakers from the ivory towers of academia to historical tour guides, military specialists or from the trenches of their latest dig. It’s not just historians, as authors, comedians and politicians join the faculty of speakers.
Steve Knightley, folk singer, and Michael Wood, historian, exploring the development of the English Radical tradition, with music dating back to 700 years ago.
The marquees are large and sturdy, with carpeted floors and padded seats. All of them have comprehensive lighting and sound systems, with speakers stretching the length of the tent so there’s never any problem with hearing what’s being said. Fans hang at the doorways and send in a refreshing breeze to lessen the high humidity. People would sit there flapping programmes like fans, sipping on a chilled glass of wine and could look through the open flaps to watch the cows wandering around in the field behind, oblivious to the dramatic tales of exploration, warfare or regicide taking place within. The smell of cordite would often drift through and the sound of gunfire would echo in the distance signalling living history taking place across the green fields.
The comfortable marquees in their beautiful setting.
With so many and such varied talks in progress, there are always three at any one time, it feels a bit like dipping your hand into the sweetie jar. Whatever you choose you can be assured that you will be immersed in history, treated to a speaker fully in control of his or her subject matter and that the talk will be laced with erudition, some acknowledged speculation, fascinating anecdotes and a good dose of humour.
The joy – for those whose memory of double periods at school is not too tainted - is of emerging from one marquee where you have joined the archaeologist in an in-depth look at life in Pompeii, getting a brief glimpse of the sunshine, and then diving into another marquee where you may have the rare (and becoming rarer still) opportunity to listen to the experiences of the veterans of Dunkirk, D-Day or the Maquis (read my piece on the incredible story of John Jammes fighting with the French Resistance). After pause for much sobering reflection you can next find yourself delighted by the incredibly funny re-telling of the Iliad before you may be plunged back again into sombre thought as a politician offers his views on the future direction of world politics.
The talks end with the opportunity for the public to ask questions, and are then often followed by book signings. The marvellous on-site Waterstones tent is near the main entrance, where you can queue for a book, autograph and a chat with the speaker, and try very hard not to spend all of your money on books.
The fabulous Julie Summers, a regular at the festival giving a talk based on her latest book, a look at the roles played by country houses during World War II.
Living History at the Chalke Valley History Festival
The Living History events are designed to provide a different kind of experiential history, intended to really make history come alive so visitors can see, feel, hear and even taste the past. As one of the demonstrators said as they were introducing a talk about the longbow, ‘we are not just reenactors, we have gone further than that, we are living historians’ explaining that many of them are experimental archaeologists, who test archaeological data and hypotheses using tools and resources which would have been available to the people of the time.
This longbow made of yew was handed around the audience in one of the talks, with the challenge that anyone who could pull the bow back could keep it. Not one person could. There is a true skill to using it - apparently it's all in the arch of the back, as demonstrated here.
The living historians all set up camp in the festival site, in haphazard rows of traditional white canvas tents, with all of their equipment from the time period they were representing. It really felt like an opportunity to see the people of the past coming alive as they pottered around, cooked over open fires and rested in the shade with their military jackets draped over the tent, chatting to their friends: soldiers from Waterloo mingling with Vikings, Georgians and Saxons.
The 35th Regiment of Foot (1756-63) at rest.
The events, which are mostly free once you are on site, take place over the weekend. This year saw the construction of a World War II trench, replicating the ones that the Germans would have hastily dug in the chalk rock of Normandy. Visitors were introduced to a scenario in late June 1944, with the Allies having taken the German trench and waiting for a counter attack by the 12th Waffen-SS ‘Hitler Jugend’ Division, learning about the equipment used and the dangers faced by the Allies, gunshots echoing over their heads as they crouched down in the trenches.
Soldiers from the Anglian Regiment re-enact a D-Day assault with a tank.
A fascinating amalgam of past and present was when serving soldiers from the Anglian regiment, donned the uniforms of their predecessors, the 1st Suffolk regiment during World War II, and used a Sherman tank to advance on the enemy, showing how it would have been done using the older military tactics without radios and all the modern technology that is available to soldiers today.
A huge crowd gathered in the sunshine to watch these young men advance up the peaceful green valley, as a commentary explained their tactics and methodology to us so that we could really understand what was going on.
Relaxing in the sunshine watching the world go by.
Learning about the history of navigation with the Vikings.
There were vintage vehicles on display, an assortment of cars, tanks, jeeps and steam engines, and high up on the hill was ‘Tiffy’, a replica Hawker Bomber built by apprentices at a local scientific firm, recreated in careful detail, a commanding presence overlooking us all at the festival.
The commanding presence of 'Tiffy', the Hawker bomber, who watched over the whole festival from high on the hill.
Pop up history events
The pop up history events are 30 minute fun, fact filled talks outside in the open, where speakers are given a microphone and away they go. There is a wide variety of subject matters which this year included mass transport at Auschwitz, Shaftesbury Abbey, Ancient Greek music, Anglo Saxon queens and the history of plastic. The fabulous History Tellers also perform miniature plays every hour, complete with props and costumes, telling some of the most fascinating stories from history in a very funny and engaging way. The one I watched about the Red Baron had adults and kids alike chuckling away.
High drama from the Red Baron with the History Tellers.
A pop up talk on 'Speaking American' with the actor, Chaz Mena.
These pop up events go on during the week and throughout the whole of the weekend, in fact they fill the entire weekend and you could easily sit at the pop up history spot for most of the weekend and watch 30 talks given by some of the same speakers doing the main talks in marquees, all as part of just your main festival entrance ticket.
In the middle of the site is Museum Row, a row of white tents each staffed by a different museum or historical group. This year the selection included the Royal Signals Museum, where kids could learn about cyber codes, spies and secret agents, use old wireless machines, and follow a maze blindfolded relying just on technology.
Walking blindfolded through a German minefield with only a radio to help at the Royal Signals Museum tent in Museum Row.
The Waterloo Uncovered tent highlighted the work of archaeological research taking place at Hougoumont Farm, the site of part of the battle of Waterloo. The excavations are being done by army veterans with PTSD, an amazing project to rehabilitate ex-military and give them a new start in life. Outside the tent, living historians in 1815 soldiers' uniforms were playing pipes and drums, chatting to people and answering questions.
Families learning about the work of Waterloo Uncovered drawn in by the sound of the piper at the Waterloo Uncovered tent.
The Battlefield Trust was there, an organisation trying to protect, preserve and encourage visitors to the sites of major battles across the UK. They had a display of artefacts that people could look at, handle and talk about as well as magazines with a lot more information.
Chalke Valley History Festival for Families and Kids
For families, the festival offers unique experiences – there are many bookable activities to take part in such as Sword School and Soldier School, but they can also just wander the stalls and exhibitions to learn about the rise and fall of the longbow, cooking through the ages, the exploration of the Vikings, the tactics of Trafalgar – the range is vast. They can listen to experts discussing the unique features of the Sherman tank or the US90mm anti-aircraft gun. They can learn, with real historic instruments, about how navigation and mapping techniques evolved over the centuries. In addition, The History Tellers is always popular with children and will delight them with their wacky and bizarre take on many of history’s more exciting tales.
Learning how to handle their weapons at Sword School.
There is a children’s activities tent with pre-bookable paid one hour slots where parents can leave their children aged 6-12 to enjoy history related arts and crafts with proper teachers, such as making Roman Swords or Victorian decoupage. This means parents can enjoy one of the talks in peace and collect the kids afterwards.
Learning about the military in the 1700s.
There were two talks which were specifically targeted at and well attended by children. The Iliad was presented by the wonderful Tom Holland, who had us all laughing out loud as he raced through the pre-story, complete with funny voices and analogies to modern day life, describing Hermes as the ‘one with the turbo powered hat’, Athena as the ‘one with the pet owl – what’s not to like?’, and the walls of Troy being fallible as the king hadn’t paid the gods who constructed them, ‘you never want to annoy builders’.
The second talk for kids was given by Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford, who encouraged the young audience to ask questions about history as he asked them, ‘why do we only learn about the Roman Britons and then skip to 1066? Why aren’t we being taught what happened in between - did nothing happen? Who makes these decisions?’ Growing up in England we only learn the history of a few countries, ‘Lithuania had the biggest empire of them all and yet we know nothing about it.’ When he said ‘Ask your parents what Proto Indo European means if you want a quiet journey home today,’ there was a slightly nervous chuckle from the adults in the audience.
These invigorating talks really provided a great deal of both humour and education for the children who attended and really help to get kids involved in the Chalke Valley experience.
For some light relief, the festival also has swing boats they can play on, a coconut shy, plenty of places to eat and acres of fields they can run around in.
Swing boats and a coconut shy to keep the younger ones entertained.
What is so important is that although the festival attracts so many of the well-heeled and well educated of the shire counties, it also attracts many people who you wouldn’t expect to see at a history festival. Although the one thing they all have in common is an interest in history, this isn’t just for diehard historians but also for people with just a casual interest. If you are one of those, I can guarantee you will leave wanting to learn more. People come from all over the world to attend the festival; I heard many American accents and some French amongst the British visitors. There is such a diverse range of talks and events, that cover so many different time periods, targeted at the different ages, that although it is an English festival with a focus on English history, it doesn’t feel exclusive.
Overall one does get the sense that the primary purpose of the festival is to educate the younger generations, to pass on the love of history and the knowledge that you can’t go forward without understanding the past. Everyone from the speakers to the re-enactors were passionate about educating people in history.
A week spent here, attending the main talks or dipping in and out of pop up talks and living history events is a week well spent. It educates, illuminates and fascinates in equal measure, nourishing the brain in the beautiful setting of the bucolic Wiltshire countryside.
How to get there?
The site is on a farm on the edge of Broadchalke, 9 miles west of Salisbury. Trains run regularly from Waterloo Station, London to Salisbury, and you can then catch a bus from town (no. 29 to Shaftesbury, there is a request stop at the church and a 15 minute walk) or take a taxi from outside the train station.
If you drive, follow signs rather than satnav as you get closer to the site, which is well signposted. There is plenty of free parking on site and lots of parking attendants to guide you to the right place. Blue badge parking is also available close to the festival entrance, just make sure you have your badge with you.
Where to stay?
There is accommodation and Airbnb’s in Broad Chalke and the surrounding villages, although they probably get booked up early on. There are plenty of hotels in Salisbury and it’s a quick and easy drive to do every day. There are local campsites and glamping sites, as well as a campsite for both tents and motor-homes just over the hill on the farm, which you can book ahead through the festival website.
Where to eat?
There are plenty of food outlets on site in the dining area with a wide range that caters for all food tastes, including vegans. There was tapas, Thai, curries, waffles, crepes, pizza, sausages, ice creams and more, as well as a fine dining tent which looked lovely, a Naafi for teas and a café selling light lunches and snacks. There is a large bar in the centre of the event which sometimes has live music. Picnic tables are also available, some of which are undercover.
Amenities at the Chalke Valley History Festival
The tented Waterstones - a true paradise for lovers of historical books. It's impossible to leave it empty handed...
There are two shops on site, a magnificent Waterstones selling a huge variety of history books both fact and fiction, as well as the latest literary offerings from the speakers. The other is a large Emporium of quality items ranging from sun hats to pottery and jewellery.
There is no Wi-Fi on site and very limited phone signal depending on your provider, so don’t rely on having any phone access.
There are plenty of normal loos and portable loos and even on the busy days I didn’t see a queue.
There is a free water station which you can also use to refill water bottles.
There are plenty of volunteers around the site, clearly identifiable by their t-shirts, who were all really friendly and helpful.
The site is both wheelchair and pushchair accessible with hard tracks laid down through the centre of the site, to help getting around on wheels, although it may be trickier if it's raining. The gangways in the tents are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and the staff are also happy to move chairs in the talks to fit wheelchairs in.
Hearing loops are available in all of the tents.
There are disabled loos on site.
This track runs down the centre of the festival and has access points to each of the tents, making it easy for wheelchairs, pushchairs and mobility scooters to get around.
Buying tickets for the Chalke Valley History Festival
The dates for 2020 are 22 to 28 June. Tickets will go on sale in April 2020; box office opens 09h00 - 13h00 from Monday to Friday. The programme of talks and events will be released just before that, keep an eye on their website, which is regularly updated.
Prices of talks for 2019 ranged from £11-£16.
To support the charitable aim of the festival, people can become Festival Friends for a cost of £27 for single membership or £45 for double membership. Being a Friend allows you to park in a dedicated Friends area that is near the main entrance, there is a special Friends Entrance to each of the talks which opens before the main entrance so you can select the best seats, and allows you to book tickets before the general public.
It really is a very comfortable and civilised festival, there is no need to rough it at all, but here are my essential tips to make the most of it.
Book online, in advance, to save money on the ticket prices.
Take a sun hat and sun cream, or a waterproof and wellies depending on the weather. The tents do get hot on sunny days so wear layers you can remove. Don’t wear heels as most of the site is grass.
If it is hot, try to sit near the doorways during the talks, to get the maximum breeze available.
The weekend is the busiest time of the festival, but that is when the most things are on for families and kids. There is usually a party with live music and fireworks on the Saturday night.
Try to plan your talks and pop up/living history events carefully otherwise you will miss many of them, strategic military style planning is definitely needed to see the maximum of what is on offer.
Many of the speakers go to the Waterstones tent to sign books and you can get the opportunity to meet them – allow time for doing this in your planning.
Remember where you parked your car!